In 2005, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took a dramatic step to curb illness among college-age people, formally recommending  that all freshmen living in dorms be vaccinated against meningitis. The disease, which tends to thrive in close-knit quarters, causes an inflammation of brain tissues and the spinal cord, and can sometimes lead to death.
Many colleges and university health officials happily took the recommendation to heart, but this summer, a breakdown has occurred in the production and allocation of the vaccine. In an eerily similar scenario to last year -- when a scramble for the vaccine left many colleges coming up short -- several institutions again report that they have not been able to get the number of doses necessary to vaccinate their incoming classes.
“Since this past May or June there has been a nationwide shortage of meningococcal vaccine, evidently due to the pharmaceutical manufacturer's inability to keep up with demands,” said Donna Campbell, a health official at Harvard University. She expects that shortages will exist until well into 2007.
David S. Rosenthal, director of health services at Harvard, said that the university placed an order in late spring with Sanofi Pasteur -- the sole manufacturer of the vaccine -- but it has gone unfilled to date.
“We were told, ‘Sorry, there’s no supply,’ ” he said. “It was quite a surprise.” The university was forced to inform freshmen that the vaccine would not be available during summer orientation sessions.
Similarly, officials at Indiana University at Bloomington announced in June  that the health center could not offer vaccines to all incoming students due to a “national shortage of the meningitis vaccine Menactra,” despite an earlier spring message sent to parents and students reminding them of the importance of vaccination.
The problem has also affected students who have tried to get the vaccine outside of college health centers. “Parents are reporting to us that health departments don’t have it,” says Doreen Perez, past president of the American College Health Association and a health official at the University of North Florida. “Many private doctors have also told me that they’re having a difficult time getting it.”
Donna Cary, a spokeswoman with Sanofi Pasteur, confirmed Wednesday that there has been a shortage of the Menactra vaccine this summer. “Demand is exceeding supply,” she said. “We are doing everything we can do to increase production.” The company is in the process of expanding its production facilities.
Cary said that some vaccine is still set aside for colleges, and that health officials should call the manufacturer’s customer service line for assistance. The company will be able to make up to 6 million doses of the vaccine by year’s end, according to Cary, which could make up for the shortage. Sanofi Pasteur will also begin shipping the vaccine in syringes, rather than vials, in an effort to measure and better control quantity.
Despite the actions being taken by the manufacturer, Perez believes that the situation should have been avoided altogether. “I think that pumping up production would have been the prudent thing to do, especially with the CDC’s recommendations,” she says. “They really need to be aware of the problem and be held accountable.”